Five talking points from Ireland's draw with Wales
In what was unquestionably the most compelling game of the opening Six Nations weekend of 2016, Ireland and Wales played out a hard-fought and blistering draw at the Aviva Stadium.
Ultimately, draw should be viewed as a positive result
Yes, in the immediate aftermath of this bruising encounter, Ireland will rue letting a 13 point lead slip and the fact they only registered one penalty for the entirety of the second half.
However, without Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson, Cian Healy, Rob Kearney, Sean O’Brien, Mike Ross and Marty Moore, they held the Championship’s favoured side to account.
Through an amalgam of heart and exceptional fundamentals, Joe Schmidt’s men rattled the cages of a Welsh outfit who were almost universally believed to leave the Aviva Stadium as handy winners.
It didn’t happen and, despite the Grand Slam or Triple Crown no longer on the line, Ireland can still retain their crown and look ahead to going to Paris to face an indifferent French team with a justified confidence.
Wales still the same old Wales
Maybe they bought into all the pre-game talk that the depleted Irish were all but beaten, but Wales started- as they often do- at a pretty pedestrian pace.
The bullies were bullied by the Irish upstarts and when Gatland’s charges failed to dominate the gain line they often looked bereft of ideas. They may cite the loss of Dan Biggar but, to be fair, Rhys Priestland deputised well.
Wales had purple patches but, when it mattered in the second period, they could not breach the line of a side who might just have wanted it a little more.
Without doubt they’'ll grow in the Championship and are probably still the favourites.
CJ Stander makes seamless transition to international rugby
As far as international debuts go, CJ Stander’s will live long in the memory as one of the best ever in an Irish jersey. Just as he has done time and again for Munster, Stander threw himself into absolutely everything with a tireless verve.
The game was barely 10 minutes old and the naturalised South African had already contributed 6 carries, to augment his aggressive tackling and rucking. If he had any nerves about graduating onto the highest stage, they were scarcely evident.
He perpetually sought out the ball and contact, for that matter, with reckless abandon. Case in point for Conor Murray’s opening try.
Off a line out, Stander carried hard, followed by Tommy O’Donnell and, surprise, surprise, it was the Munster captain who was up next to pummel the Welsh tacklers. He was held up on the line, which led to the scrum that proved the platform for the scrum-half’s fine score.
What Ireland lacked in bulk, they made up for in grit
Such was the extensive list of Ireland’s walking wounded in the pack, it was thought that the Welsh eight would simply swat aside the shrimps in green. Things certainly didn’t transpire that way. In the front row, Nathan White carried hard, while Jack McGrath bulldozed would be Welsh poachers from the breakdown.
Like Stander, Jamie Heaslip and Tommy O’Donnell were indefatigable in their battle against the highly-vaunted Welsh back row. Heaslip’s turnover after a sustained Welsh onslaught at the end of 70 exhausting minutes typified everything that was great about the Irish display.
In the opening 20 minutes in particular, they out thought, fought and played Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau. The breakdown prowess of the former duo was almost wholly neutralised in face of the ferocious Irish clear outs.
The backs, too, dug in. Andrew Trimble lined up and pulverised Alun Wyn Jones to foil an early Wales salvo, while Robbie Henshaw affected some pivotal turnovers. Furthermore, Keith Earls was picking up and dropping men in red shirts seemingly for the fun of it
In what was the anathema of France’s showing against Italy yesterday, Ireland’s collective line speed was cohesive and overwhelmingly fast. Big Welsh carriers were beaten back from the gain line and then swarmed on the deck.
Wales did flex their muscle at scrum time, which facilitated Talupe Faletau’s vital try, which got his side back in the game just as it looked like Ireland might just pull away.
Inspired by Johnny Sexton, Ireland show glimpses of more expansive game
Johnny Sexton gave the type of assured and dominant performance that will have extinguished the vast majority of the lingering doubts which have followed him since returning home to Ireland at the end of the World Cup.
He put his backs in motion and mixed up the point of attack with a far greater variety than we’ve seen in some time. The offloading game may not have materialised, but Ireland put it through the hands and wide when permitted, though rarely in areas where the Welsh line could be suitably threatened.
However, the intent was there and attacking fluency should improve over the course of the Championship. Whether or not this will silence the klaxon call for a more visually pleasing mode of attack is yet to be seen.
For his part, Sexton bossed things beautifully, kept referee Jerome Garces on his toes and, after shipping a knock to the back of the head, landed the penalty that ensured the spoils were shared.